Redundant retail staff rally together to fight for pension rights
The pensions crisis afflicting the retail sector comes to a head next week, when the independent trustee of the Courts pension fund delivers his verdict on the controversial circumstances surroundingthecollapsed retailer's pension pot.

The trustee's findings could provide the retailer's pensioners and their counterparts at Allders with the ammunition to test the power of pensions legislation that came into force on April 6.

Theinvestigationwas sparked by members fearful that they faced old age in poverty after the demise of Courts.

According to Ged Dempsey of the Courts' pensioners action group, it has so far proved impossible to find accounts for the pension for 1998/1999. That year, it is claimed, the directors' fund, which was in deficit, was merged with the main Courts' scheme. The apparent absence of accounts is a matter of serious concern, said Dempsey.

Courts' administrator KPMG appointed Rothschild and KPMG Corporate Finance to advise on the disposal of the overseas businesses last week.

However, their sale is unlikely to bring a windfall to Courts pension campaigners because the extent of the retailer's debts atthetimeofcollapseis expected to outweigh the estimated£200 million price tag.

Separately, former Allders trading director David Batt has taken up the baton on behalf of Allders' several thousand pensioners. Allders' administrator Kroll is funding contributions to the scheme, ensuring eligibility for the Pension Protection Fund, the Government's new pensions lifeboat.

Batt was due to meet with BESTrustees, the fund's independent advisers yesterday.

The Allders pensioners are keen to prevent the scheme being wound up, a move that would crystallise an estimated£60 million deficit. Any campaign on behalf of Allders' pensioners is likely to centre on the role played by former shareholder Minerva. Minerva has asserted that it bears no liability.

BESTrusteesmanagingdirectorCliveGilchristsaid no decision has yet been taken on the future of the fund. But he added that Minerva's obligations under the new pensions rules were unclear. 'Where they [Minerva] stand in terms of the new regulations is yet to be seen,' said Gilchrist.

Alchemy managing partner Jon Moulton, who walked away from buying Allders because of the pension deficit, believes Minerva may have a case to answer.

'The rules have changed beyond all recognition,' said Moulton. 'Improving Allders seemed very feasible, but the combination of the high prices paid for the property and the pensions issue made the transaction impossible. There are more issues in pensions than have yet been dealt with [in retail]. There's a long way to run.'

Moulton's pessimism about the pension deficits being deal-breakers is not preventing him from returning to retail. He said: 'We will be doing some retail not far forward, I think.'